Sponsor Spotlight: Side Project, Inc.

In our latest Sponsor Spotlight, we’re talking with Jeff Fromknecht, founder and CEO of Side Project, a fiscal sponsor with offices in Pittsburgh and, Erie, Pa., and South Florida.


We discussed Side Project’s origin story, the importance of its five core values and the basis behind the organization’s logic model — Asset Based Community Development. Unlike some of our previous Spotlight articles, this one focuses on a true grassroots effort that, through its efforts, is helping other grassroots programs take shape.

The following transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

Schulman Consulting: First off, tell me a little bit about the backstory of Side Project.

Jeff Fromknecht: We got started back in 2012. It was a group of young professionals from different backgrounds got together in Pittsburgh. We had all been volunteering at various nonprofits for the majority of our time in grad school. I was in school for social work and law. A couple of the other guys were in school for law. A couple of the others had MBAs. But we had all been volunteering at nonprofits, not just helping to build a house, but we were trying to volunteer using the skills that we had learned in our graduate programs, applying them to the nonprofit world.

Pittsburgh, PA, Erie, PA and Boynton Beach, FL
Services Offered:
Model A
Geographic Focus:
Local, regional, national
Sector/Service Focus:
Social Justice and Social Change
Active Projects: 12

We decided to formalize that in August of 2012 in a formal ‘Side Project’ with the goal of trying to be a nonprofit incubator: Supporting grassroots projects to get off the ground. One of the ways that saw that we could do that was through fiscal sponsorship.

My wife and I met in grad school. She was from Florida. We decided we were going to move to Florida. But, the majority of people who were involved with Side Project were in Pittsburgh. We said, “Well, let’s give this a go.” Our vision, from the beginning, was to be more a virtual organization operating in both places. We were all busy. Our vision from the beginning was to be this virtual organization.

The first project we sponsored was a coalition of Health and Human Service Organizations from around the United States and Canada that all shared a common vision, and a common goal of working to have people with disabilities to be more included in the community, in both work and social opportunities. To live, work, and play in the communities with their non-disabled peers. It is called The Interdependence Network.

These groups were all doing various things, various projects and activities towards that goal. They decided to form this coalition to try to share best practices. To try to come up with sort of a shared set of metrics that they could measure their progress against, because, at that time, measurement wasn’t something that a lot of these organizations did. They weren’t sure how to do that. They all got together to develop a common set of measurements.

They got some university partners. They were able to get some grants to host workshops. They wanted it to be a coalition so they decided to go with us as their fiscal sponsor. We got started with that. They pretty much had had the grant when we launched. We got started with them from day one.

That was the first project that we supported. We continue to support that group as a fiscal sponsor.

SC: So, that’s how you got started. That was six years ago. How are operating now? How many projects do you have in each place? Do you have staff? How have things grown from there?

JF: Things have grown. They were slow at first, but in the last, I’d say, three and a half years, we’ve grown quite a bit. We do have part-time staff member, our bookkeeper. That’s a lot of the work that we do for these projects, is managing their money and paying bills for them and doing work like that. Our bookkeeper oversees all of that. A lot of the projects have project staff. But, as of now, we only have myself, who is the sort of the program coordinator, and then the bookkeeper.

Right now, we have 12 projects.

SC: That’s great. Are these all Model A? Or is do you offer Model C as well?

JF: We do the fully integrated model with all of these projects, where they become a division of Side Project. A lot of these projects are in our incubator program. The goal for them is that eventually they will be their own organization.

They come to us, usually, unincorporated. In addition to overseeing their finances, we help them understand the legal component of what we do. If they have a goal to start their own organization eventually, we include them, a lot, in understanding fundraising rules and laws. Understanding how to manage donors. We invite them to board meetings and provide other growth opportunities.

We try to help them from that 30,000-foot view perspective – thinking about everything very strategically. Depending on where they’re at, they may not yet have a business plan. We’ll help them think through what that means for their project.

They may not have a fundraising plan. We’ll help them think through what that plan might look like. We try and underscore the idea that, at first, it doesn’t matter, exactly what’s in your plan. What’s important is that you have a plan, and that you can track progress. You can see if what you’re doing is working.

A lot of times, these projects, depending on a person’s background, their fundraising strategy may be kind of out there. Sometimes people, you can tell them that it’s a little bit out there. But they believe in what they believe in. We’ll let them try. If it’s something that is obviously within the bounds of the law, we’ll let them try. But we want to make sure that they have metrics in place so they can evaluate if their plan is working.

If it’s not, then you have to look at why isn’t it working? And adjust. That’s what we try to do, is help them with the financial and legal day-to-day activities. But then, also helping them put together the strategic plan, basically.

SC: So, it sounds like most of the people that you’re working with now, are first time founders? People going out on their own who need to learn all this stuff and aren’t coming to the table with it already? Or, are they experienced and they just need a little help here and there? How would you sort of characterize the leaders of your projects?

JF: It’s really a mix. I’d say half of them have nonprofit experience. Maybe they’ve been doing what they’ve been doing, but they want start their own program. They want do it as a fiscal sponsorship just to test it, to see if it’s going to work. See if their model has any kind of efficacies.

The other half, I would say, are new to the nonprofit world. They recognize that they don’t know what they don’t know. Someone along the way has suggested that they find a fiscal sponsor. We actually work with a couple of groups that had different fiscal sponsors. But, for whatever reason, didn’t work out – so they came to Side Project.

It’s a good mix. We try to focus in on the younger entrepreneurial type of projects and groups of people. That’s sort of our bread and butter is the person that has an idea. It’s fresh and new, it advances one of our corporate values. They have a big heart, but they really aren’t sure where to get started. But they’re very passionate and they want to try something.

SC: You mentioned your corporate values. Can you tell us what those are?

JF: Yes. We only select projects that advance one or more of our corporate values.

Let’s start with the importance of relationships. We believe that the community and neighborhoods and organizations, and generally everyone is better when people are out there building connections. A lot of our projects are community organizing efforts that are aimed at trying to get a group of people together to address a common problem and to develop a common solution.

Another of our values is inclusion. We think that everyone, disability, or non-disability, race, gender, whatever, we think that everyone’s better off when everyone’s included. We believe that everyone has value, and has something that they can offer the community. We support projects that are supportive of inclusion around people with disabilities, or race, or ethnicity, or any number of areas.

Service is another. We believe using the tools and the gifts that we each have to serve your community. That’s a very important value of ours. We’re driven by volunteers, pretty much. So we share that value everyday.

Competence is another of our values. Competence is important because we know that there’s lots of things we don’t know. We want to focus in on the things that we do know. We want to do them well. We do a lot of training and education for our project leaders on the legal issues. We’re always there to answer questions. We want to make sure that they know the rules and regulations that are impacting their work.

We also make sure that the projects we work with have a sense of competence, that when they say they want to do something, that we think they can get it done. If they are identifying a community need, we want know how they identified that. Are they part of that community? Are they just an outsider? We look at competence in a variety of different ways.

Two more: Social Justice is our fourth value. There, we believe that, again, everyone’s better off when everyone’s included and when everyone is treated equitably, that the community is better. So we support projects that we feel are fighting some type of social injustice. Our projects tend to focus on inclusion, animal rights, women’s rights projects and education. We believe education is one of the great tools to fight social injustice.

And then lastly, we believe in having fun. We don’t want to take ourselves too seriously. We want to be able to work with people that work hard, play hard. At the end of the day, we’re all just people, and we want to make sure that we’re increasing the amount of fun that’s in our communities.

We want to make sure that you can take a joke and have a personality if you’re going to like working with Side Project, or being involved in Side Project.

SC: That’s very helpful. Aside from those values that you’re looking for, when a potential project approaches you: #1 What is your official application review process like in terms of timing, and what’s involved?

And #2, are there other things that you’re taking into consideration, whether it’s your board or whoever’s reviewing these, specifically around committed funds, if they’re coming with any financial support?

JF: Our process is twofold. It starts off with a conversation with me. People contact us one of two ways. They send us an email, or they call us. If they send me an email and want to know more about our projects, then I have them schedule a call with me. That’s the first step.

I have them tell me about what resources they have. I have them tell me about what activities they want to do. If they tell me they want host a summer camp, “All right. Tell me about how many kids you’re planning to have. What types of activities are you going do there?” We get an idea of what their activities, and their goals are around those activities. Then I have them talk a little about what their overall goal is. What change are they hoping to make in the community?

Depending on people’s response to those questions, if they have answers, and they make sense, and it fits our values, then I will invite them to submit an application. We have a 10-question application. It’s basically a logic model, where people tell us about their activities, their resources, their outputs, their short term and long term outcomes.

We also require them to submit a budget. As part of the resource description, that includes not only financial resources, but human resources, social capital – who else is involved in the project? What are your backgrounds? How are you going get this done?

That application is reviewed by the board, and ultimately must be approved by the board. The board usually takes two to three weeks to review applications. The board is looking at the values the project is trying to advance. We approach all the applications from what’s called an Asset Based Community Development approach. We use that as a starting point. This approach to community development that John McKnight developed. The basic premise of it is that you focus on a community or a person’s strengths, and not their weaknesses.

If our board rejects an application, I will talk with the applicant about what we see as their strengths, and what we found as weaknesses in the project. But we’ll give them an opportunity to address that and to try to correct it.

If I talk to a group and they’re not quite ready to apply for a project, we have what’s called our Social Change Strategic Plan Worksheet, which is a worksheet that takes you through some questions that help you put together a logic model. If I’m talking with someone and it’s kind of clear that they have a big heart. They want to give back, but they aren’t really sure what they’re going to do. They have big plans, but they’re not really sure how to get started. We’ll give them the logic model, tell them to work on the logic model. I’ll give them feedback on the logic model. Once they get it to a point that we think the board would accept it, then we’ll have them apply.

Our board is made up of lawyers and business people, and a teacher. They all look at (these applications) from different perspectives. We do have a set of criteria that, obviously, involves our corporate values. We also take into account what type of risk is involved in a project. It looks at whether the project seems to be feasible or not, given the logic model and the finances that they have in place. They do consider the financial part from the sense that, if someone says they’re going build a homeless shelter, does the budget reflect that? Are there any committed funds? Is this something that’s been very well thought out?

If not, they would reject that, because it, internally, was inconsistent. It didn’t make sense. And actually, that’s probably wouldn’t even get to the board. I try to be a gatekeeper there and only send them projects that I think have potential.

In addition to this factors specific to each application, the board will also look internally at Side Project’s own capacity for a certain project. They are hesitant to take on projects that have a lot of ongoing, regular expenses. For instance, if a project has one or two staff members, that’s probably not going be an issue. But if there’s a project that has 15 staff, and is billing insurance, or has a fee for service model, where they’re collecting rents or payments each month, and then making payments out, and there’s just a lot going on. Usually that’s going be something our board would recommend that they start their own organization, or that they look for a fiscal sponsor that has a little bit more capacity.

They look at both the external, sort of what is the project doing? But then they also look at it from a perspective of what’s the impact on Side Project? They have taken on projects that have the potential to grow, but maybe right now only have a couple staff. The idea is, once they grow, that they’ll probably spin out and become their own organization in some way.

Back to our Asset Based Approach, we don’t have any financial requirements, or minimums. Our basic requirement is that, like I said, that it advances at least one of those values that we mentioned. And that it’s something that it is unique to the sector.

I was a social worker for 12 years. I’m pretty familiar with a lot of different projects. We don’t necessarily want to support something that’s just typical charity. We want to support something that’s going to be focusing on some type of change, or social injustice, not necessarily just handing something out to someone. That’s another factor that they look at, is the potential that the project has to impact social change, and not just charity.

SC: So, along the lines of the board, and thinking about your capacity, and those kinds of things, do you guys have a vision for what Side Project could become?

JF: We tried to design this fiscal sponsorship nonprofit incubator, from the beginning, so that it can grow. It can be scalable. We are in the process of trying to make that happen. I think the goal within a couple years is to have someone that is our fiscal sponsor director, or coordinator. I would shift that responsibility away from myself. We’re in the process of building that right now. Putting together some job descriptions and things like that.

When it first started, I was also doing all the bookkeeping. Over the past year and a half, we transferred that to a bookkeeper. It’s a little bit more complex than if it’s one organization, because there’s lots of different divisions.

We’ve been growing with our financial management and sort of how we do that. We’ve just been getting better at it as we go. We’ve been talking to CPAs and accountants. Last year we had an audit done, for the first time in our history. That was clearly something we needed to do to get to the next level.

We’ve had some significant growth with our projects recently. A couple of our projects have raised over $100,00.00, each, which is incredible for a startup nonprofit to raise that much.

SC: That’s great.

JF: The foundations that gave that money did not require an audit, but we know that there are a number of large foundations that do. And going through that process, we put in some financial control policies. Just really putting into writing a lot of things that we’ve already been doing. That whole process really helped us think about how to delegate responsibility for these other projects.

This whole organization was born out of my background as a community organizer, social worker, who went to law school. It was a goal of mine when I started project, was to institutionalize the vision that I have for how community change could happen. That vision is sort of a marriage of the community organizing strategies and the Asset Based Community Development, and these other strategies that I learned when I was in grad school for social work. And combined that with my knowledge as a lawyer, and the tools that the IRS gives you through public charities, and the benefits of public charities.

We’re right now, fueled by a lot of volunteer labor, and a lot of law student intern labor, which has been good. We have systems – an online project management system in place that allows us to work remotely from anywhere. And to delegate tasks,, to work together on projects, even though we’re not in the same room.

I think our priority over growth is always going to be doing good work for the projects that we currently have. That’s my focus. I let my board think about the strategic plan, and long term growth. But I know that we want to make sure that we’re serving all of our projects the best that we can, because ultimately, that’s our goal is to include issues in the community that we feel need addressed.

If we can only help 14 or 25 projects, but they’re all doing really good things, then we feel like we’ve been successful. But, I think we do have the potential to grow. We’ve doubled our budget every year of existence.

SC: That makes a lot of sense. Can you touch, maybe, on a couple of project success stories that you’re comfortable sharing?

JF: Yeah. I think, I’ll tell you about one in Florida, and I’ll tell you about one in Pittsburgh.

The one in Florida is called Public Schools 305. It’s a community organizing effort led by a woman named Yannell Selman, she’s a community organizer. She’s from Miami and was a product of Miami Public Schools. She was like number one in her class in high school, went off to college. She struggled a little bit. She said, “I didn’t realize that the school I went to, didn’t really prepare me for college, and I was at the top of my class. What about some of these other kids?”

So she worked in the education advocacy world in California for about five years after she finished up undergrad. Then she decided to move back to Florida and work to organize the Miami communities, low income neighborhoods in Miami to identify what issues they found with the schools, and then identify what they could do to improve it. It’s really a community-based effort to get the neighborhood involved to make improvements on the school.

She’s been able to secure about $150,000 in funding to do this. She’s been at it for about a year. She’s amazing. She really does good work. Her project has now spun off into its own organization.

And then I have two projects from Pittsburgh that are good examples: The first is called The Western Pennsylvania Disability History and Action Consortium.

They’re working to create an online repository of the disability movement in Western Pennsylvania. They highlight stories from advocates. They share stories from the closing of these different institutions that they used to have for people with disabilities. They’re trying to highlight all the work that was done in the ’70s and ’80s, and ’90s, to share with the new generation of leaders in the disability movement.

You never want to forget your history. You never want to forget where you came from. That’s the goal. A lot of these documents and a lot of these stories are just oral histories at this point. The folks that were involved in there are slowly retiring and passing away. Their stories are being lost. They’re working with the Heinz History Center and there’s a whole coalition of nonprofits in the disability space, and the history space in Western PA that they’re working with to catalog and document all of these resources that are out there. They’ll have this online. They have it. They have their website up. It’s started. They’re still in the process of doing that.

That is, I think, again, in itself, was led by a self advocate, a gentleman with a disability himself, whose been an advocate for years and has done a lot, is involved in a lot of the history that happened. That’s one. Primarily, that’s a group of working professionals, older folks.

The other group in Pittsburgh that’s newer, is called the Pittsburgh Center for Autistic Advocacy. This is a group of 20 something year old young adults that all share a common diagnosis of Autism or Asperger’s. I think they’ve been at this for a few years. But their goal is to help the Pittsburgh community better understand Autism, and what it means. They do workshops and education series. they’re a good example of doing a lot with a little.

SC: That’s great. A couple more questions, and then I’ll let you go. Thinking sort of macro about fiscal sponsorship, you’ve been in and around fiscal sponsorship for a while now. What are the biggest challenges that you guys have run into, whether it’s for Side Project itself, or in terms of your projects?

JF: I do see that, as a whole, it’s a misunderstood area. I think a lot of it has to do with that we’re really talking about several different ideas when we say the word fiscal sponsorship, as we alluded to earlier, with the Model A, Model C. Those are really completely different things from a legal perspective.

I learned about fiscal sponsorship at a nonprofit that I worked at. I worked at two organizations before I became a lawyer. One of them was very traditional. One of them was trying to be cutting edge and trying to be on the forefront of things.

That group, the one that was trying to be on the forefront and do unique things, they were openly embraced fiscal sponsorship of small grassroots projects that were led by people that would be impacted by them. That’s really an underlying sort of tenant of social work is that the idea of nothing for us without us.

I think a lot of times, nonprofits lose that idea. There’s some great benefits of bringing business intuition to nonprofits. But sometimes, one of the things you lose is that connection to the people that you’re supporting. I see the fiscal sponsorship as a great opportunity. But a lot of existing nonprofits are hesitant to take on a new project, because they’re not really sure how it works. They don’t understand that they have every right to create a new project. It doesn’t matter if the board comes up with the idea, or if someone approaches the board with the idea.

I see that as a barrier. I think if more organizations were open to the idea that you’d really see some of these organizations better responding to the needs of the community.

SC: So let’s talk about funders. Are most of the funders that your projects are talking to and getting funding from, are they mostly foundations? Or individuals? Or governments? Some combination?

JF: It’s really a combination. I’d say the majority, if you look at it from how much has been raised? The majority of the funds have come from foundations. The foundations, usually, in the application or in the letter of inquiry, we explain what it is and sometimes they have a follow up question for me, but usually they’re fine with it.

We do have some individual donors. A couple of the projects are primarily supported through that.

But, overall, … I’ve had to explain the arrangement to some donors. Usually once you do, everyone’s fine with it. We haven’t had any real issues with that.

SC: Are there any other things that I didn’t ask you about that you think are important to share about Side Project, your work and everything?

JF: We’re trying to help small projects get off the ground. We understand that not all of them are going be successful. We have an idea what can make the project successful. We believe that’s planning and hard work. We’re willing to work with anyone that’s willing to do those two things. Put in time and plan. Planning isn’t something everyone likes to do.

It’s been an interesting ride, so far. My introduction to fiscal sponsorship was that I supported some of the projects that a larger nonprofit I worked at provided fiscal sponsorship for. But, I never really realized how many people would be out there looking for it.

We get several calls a month with these projects. It’s great. It’s really reassuring to know that people are seeing issues in their community and wanting to do something about it in their own way. That’s how social change happens. It happens when people act. You can’t just rely on the institutions that are out there to do all the work. There’s lots of work that needs done.

If you see something that needs done, do it. That’s the type of people that tend to call us. It’s really reassuring. We live in some interesting times. When you see people out there that are doing good work and on a very local level, you know that you’re just seeing a little glimpse of what’s really happening. It makes everything that we do worth it.

Do you have any questions for Jeff or Side Project? Do you know of a sponsor that we should feature? Please let us know in the comments below.

Photo by Victor Benard on Unsplash

Providing the tools to do good in local communities with Side Project, Inc.

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